Extraordinaires by Michael Pryor

Extraordinaires

a review by Nalini Haynes

The Extinction Gambit book one

The Extraordinaires introduces Kingsley Ward, a young man who aspires to be a magician or escapologist in 1908. When a performance goes wrong due to the antics of stage hands, Kingsley’s ‘wild side’ surfaces – he’s a werewolf, although that term is never used. Rescued by the quick thinking of Evadne Stephens, a female juggler of some skill, diverse talents and extraordinary looks, Kingsley escapes to discover his step-father has disappeared. Kingsley and Evadne unite to look for Dr Ward. Along the way they meet Rudyard Kipling who has already written The Jungle Book, based on second hand stories Kipling heard about Kingsley. Their nemeses are later revealed to be Immortals, three magical, evil beings whose ultimate goals are somewhat unclear, but whose immediate goal is survival even at the cost of killing others.

Neanderthals living under London complicate matters further, seeking Kingsley to manipulate Dr Ward into revealing secrets to enable them to travel back in time to eradicate humans in time to save Neanderthals. Pryor’s descriptions of the Neanderthals varied from being accurately described to being gigantic monsters who enjoy eating humans; this was not merely a matter of perception of others, but a varying focus of the Neanderthals themselves. No-one appeared to have told the Neanderthals that they are also the ancestors of Homo Sapiens.
Time travel is not just a feature of this story but also a plot point. In this, the first book in the series, Pryor is playing with the ideas and with the audience. Thought has obviously gone into actions and consequences and yet the grandfather paradox hasn’t been explored fully; I have the distinct feeling that Pryor is leading the audience on to some dramatic event in a later book. (The grandfather paradox is where you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before your father was conceived; if you weren’t born, then how could you travel back in time to prevent your birth? Thus history develops causal loops and paradoxes. In The Extraordinaires, if the Neanderthals travel back in time to wipe out homo sapiens then, having wiped out homo sapiens, they wouldn’t have the incentive to develop time travel to go back to wipe out homo sapiens, therefore homo sapiens wouldn’t be wiped out…)
Evadne introduces Kingsley to the world of the demi-monde, which is not merely the world of thieves and whores, but is another, unseen, semi-magical layer of society. I was getting very strong Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman) vibes long before Pryor introduced the floating market. As London is so old and complex, with existing Roman structures below ground to this day, it is a fitting location for stories of two worlds co-existing mysteriously.
Steampunk-esque is a reasonable description of this novel; while not truly fitting the steampunk genre, Pryor toys around with steampunk-like themes and gadgetry. It appears most genuine steampunk is based on ‘what if [insert technological change here]’ – for example, what if the Babbage engine was successfully built? Or what if other semi-feasible technological developments were made in the nineteenth century, usually based on cogs, gears and fuelled with coal? Pryor has changed the technology of the era without extending his world-building to this extent. For example, an automobile in 1908 races away from Neanderthals chasing it on foot, whereas real automobiles in that era were slow. If I remember correctly, in this era someone had to walk in front of the car with a flag to ensure no-one was hit in spite of cars being slow and cumbersome.
Evadne wears spectacles that look not unlike tinted modern-day spectacles, however she adjusts her spectacles at the side or bridge of the nose to give herself night vision, enlargement or alter light settings. This kind of technology does not exist today, so at the very least Evadne should be wearing goggles with greater limitations instead of spectacles. The Extraordinaires is not strictly speaking steampunk with this kind of technological mish-mash, but adding in a hint of magic and time travel and it all works quite well, partly because The Extraordinaires doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Evadne herself is fairly unique. Evadne is an albino with pink eyes. It is highly unusual for human albinos to have pink eyes – we walk among you unnoticed due to our lack of pink eyes. Pryor has obviously done some research into albinism, and either chosen to ignore some of the worst aspects of albinism for the benefit of the story or, due to lack of understanding of the condition, has glossed over some aspects. I am pleased that the albino is neither a villain nor mentally ill or socially repellent in some way. Various forms of entertainment have almost universally represented albinos in a very negative light; Luna Lovegood, the kooky yet intelligent and loyal friend of Harry Potter, is the previously most positive albino role model of which I am aware. Representations of albinos are so universally negative that there is even a lobby group whose goal is to lobby creators into representing albinos in a better light. Pryor has written an albino protagonist who is active, incredibly intelligent and creative as well as the gorgeous love interest of the male protagonist.
Evadne and Kingsley are developed as characters in a tone not unlike Jane Austen, with inferences and humorous patter implying developments rather than bludgeoning the reader. Dr Ward remains a somewhat aloof character with secrets to be revealed, while Kipling becomes an interested ally. The Immortals and the Neanderthals make good villains, providing both black & white and shades of grey. The Extraordinaires is a light, fun read racing along with some thought to the two eras in which it was set. Highly recommended for teens and young adults and the young at heart.